Udaya Cabral
Convener, ICH National Committee Sri Lanka

Storytelling in Sri Lanka is an intellectual effort made by people who have little used or perhaps not even acquired the art of writing. It can take the form of a mother telling a folktale to entertain her children, or one shepherd recounting a story to another to pass the time while guarding their fields
at night or before laying down to sleep after their evening meal. At each pause during the narration, the listener should interject with a verbal filler, “hmm,” as an encouragement to the narrator. Every tale begins with the phrase “Aka math aka rataka” (Once upon a time) and ends with a statement that the heroes of the story settled down well in the country. The following is a famous folk story from the ancient North Western Province, Sri Lanka.

Once upon a time, a beautiful young woman wandered into a jungle carrying her little baby girl in search of food. She was very tired, so she made a soft bed from
the petals of flowers and laid the baby on it. Then she left to search for fruits to satisfy her immense hunger. Two great birds who had no babies of their own found the little human baby in its nest of flowers and carried it away on their backs to their own nest. Their nest was very large; many strange birds lived together there in harmony. There was a parrot, a myna, ahen, a stork, a kingfisher, and a tailorbird in their nest.

As the little girl grew big, she helped the great birds to build a house with doors and windows. Everybody in the land of birds heard of “the house of many birds” and the kind little girl who had helped to build it. The birds called their little adopted daughter Amal Biso, and all loved her very much. One day Amal Biso’s foster parents lit a fire on the hearth in the house and asked her to look after it. She was to be sure not to let it go out before their return as they were going on a long journey to get bangles and ornaments for little Amal Biso. The little girl promised her beloved parents to look after the fire until their return. After the birds had been away for some time, she fell asleep and the fire went out. When she awoke, she found only ashes on the hearth, and was so sorry that she began to cry.

A parrot heard her crying and tried to comfort her. He said, “Little girl, stop crying. There is no smoke without fire. I flew over the Rakshaya’s [a male devil] house earlier and I noticed some smoke coming out of it. Dry your tears, little girl; I will take you to the Rakshaya’s house to get some fire.”

So they went to the Rakshaya’s house. The Rakshani (female devil) came out, and the little girl asked for fire to light a torch to take home. In return, the Rakshani asked Amal Biso to help her to do some work in the house. The girl had to prepare seven large baskets of paddy in return for a little fire. The
Rakshani took a piece of coconut shell with a hole in it, put ashes at the bottom, and having placed a piece of smoldering charcoal on them, gave it to her with a fire stick.

Later, the Rakshaya came home. “What is this, Bolan?” he asked the woman. “There is a smell of a human body—a human has been here.”

The woman replied, “Yes, a girl came for fire. Thinking you would come, I made her boil seven baskets of paddy. I looked, but you were not to be seen. Afterwards, having placed ashes in a piece of coconut shell with a hole in it, I put a hot coal on them, and gave her the shell. By this time, she will be home.
But there will be ashes along the path on which she went. Go, look and follow the ash path.”

So the Rakshaya followed the ash path. The parrot, having seen him coming across the rice field, said to Amal Biso, “Elder sister, the Rakshaya is coming. Shut the door.” The girl quickly shut and bolted the door.

The Rakshaya, approaching the house, called out, “Here are golden bracelets, O daughter. Here are golden anklets, O daughter. Open the door, my daughter.”

Then the Parrot said, “No golden bracelets, O elder sister. No golden anklets, O elder sister. Don’t open the door, wise elder sister.”

The Rakshaya ran to catch the parrot, but was unable to. The parrot fled into the jungle and stayed there.

Afterwards, the Rakshaya, having come back to the house, said, “Here are golden bracelets, O daughter. Here are golden anklets, O daughter. Open the door, my daughter.”

Then the stork, said, “No golden bracelets, O elder sister. No golden anklets, O elder sister. Don’t open the door, wise elder sister.”

The Rakshaya chased down the stork and killed him. The Rakshaya then tried to catch Amal Biso several times, but each time birds appeared and protected the poor girl.

The Rakshaya went to an old witch who lived in a cave nearby and begged her assistance to catch Amal Biso. The old witch gave him a charmed nail, which she told him to place upon the door of the house.

In the evening, the great birds returned home and their little human daughter went to open the door to greet them. But when Amal Biso opened the door, the charmed nail pierced her head. She fell down and died.

The poor parent birds put Amal Biso in a decorated boat with her dear friend the parrot and sent the boat down the river. It sailed a very long way.

The following morning a lady from another village went down to the river, and noticed a strange boat coming toward her. She swam out to meet it and brought it ashore. The lady took Amal Biso out of the boat and dressed her in soft, white silk and combed her long, black hair. She found the nail hidden in the hair and she removed it. With the nail removed, the little girl came back to life.

The lady loved Amal Biso so much she thought they must have been mother and daughter. Then all her sorrows vanished when she found a mark in the shape of a tiny red star on the palm of Amal Biso’s left hand—this confirmed that this was indeed her own lost child.

While Amal Biso loved being with her mother, she never forgot her kind bird parents. They discovered she was alive and well, and often visited her, bringing her news of the rest of her friends in the house of many birds.

The story of Amal Biso is a great example of a regional folktale. The culture of Sri Lanka mixes the ancient with modern cultural elements and is known for its regional diversity. Sri Lankan culture has long been influenced by the heritage of Theravada Buddhism, which was introduced from India in the third century BCE. The religion’s legacy has also influenced the oral tradition in Sri Lanka and the wider South Asian region too. Oral tradition can be classified under folklore. It should also be noted that the transference of oral tradition to writing and printed form does not destroy its validity as folklore. Indeed, freezing or fixing its form helps to keep it alive and to disseminate it among those to whom it is not native.